Thoughts from the 2014 FutureSchools conference #FutureSKL

I’m currently sitting at the Gate Lounge 33 at Sydney Domestic Airport (well that’s where I was when I started writing the article, but it’s now the weekend and I’m at home finishing it up) after spending the last 2 days at the 2014 FutureSchools conference. If I was to sum up my thoughts in a few words, they’d probably be Good things are happening in schools, but there’s so much more to do.

As a general rule, the presentations were pretty good. I felt there were some that focussed a bit too much on the technology and/or the learning spaces themselves rather than the pedagogy that goes along with it, but some of that I believe comes back to not all of the presenters being “professional” presenters in a sense. My only criticism of the event overall would be that it was very much a “sit and listen” type of event – interaction with presenters was pretty low (with the exception of Eric Mazur who did a great job involving us in his presentation – see the section on Peer Instruction below), and that made the later sessions difficult to stay completely focused on. What we really needed were some opportunities to work with smaller groups of delegates to explore interesting ideas and talk about the details of what was being presented – much of it was big picture, and didn’t address some of the more pressing issues like how to bring staff along and/or break down preconceptions or negativity about change.

Learning Spaces: an enabler, not an answer

Presenters from a few different schools gave us some insight into the way they are using some of their learning spaces. Presenters from Brisbane Boys College, Scotch Oakburn College in Launceston, Stonefields School in Auckland, Mordialloc College in Victoria and Anglican Church Grammar School among others all demoed their learning spaces and talked about the ways they’re re-thinking how they’re used to keep kids engaged with school.

We’re very lucky at my school that, as a newly built school that is only a few years old, the learning spaces that have been set up throughout the building have a lot of variation and scope for being very flexible. What has tended to occur, though, is that each of the spaces in the building has become setup and used in a relatively static and permanent way – although there is scope for flexibility and dynamism, in many cases very little is done to change how each is space is used throughout the year. The result is that the methods used to teach in those spaces are very typical of what would be observed in regular classrooms – evidence that having flexible spaces alone is insufficient to change teaching.

That doesn’t really come as a surprise – technology works in much the same way. Replacing books with laptops doesn’t automatically create classrooms that aren’t teacher-driven (and in fact, I’ve seen many examples where the only difference is that students type notes from the board rather than writing them), nor does swapping out blackboards and chalk for IWBs. Like technology, learning spaces are an enabler – both provide us with new capabilities that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

Think of it this way – if all students have at their disposal is books and pens, then every task they do will involve writing, drawing and/or conversation with content provided by the teacher. However, with technology, not only can they also do things like make movies, record their discussions and collaborate in real-time on the same documents, they can also access an unlimited amount of information to help consolidate their learning, and use a range of different resources that might be more appropriate for their learning styles (opting for a video or podcast series rather than text-heavy web sites or articles).

Many teachers are unfamiliar with the technology and unsure of how to use it to teach in new and interesting ways. The same can be said for learning spaces – if all you’ve ever known is rows of desks and a board at the front of the room, how then can you be expected to take advantage of the options provided by highly flexible learning spaces?

Interestingly, in the case of flexible learning spaces, many of the benefits they offer are only really available if they are coupled with technology. While we can configure learning spaces to provide students with areas for group discussion and collaboration, individual learning, large-group presentation of information and one-on-one support, if we’re relying on a single source of information or content delivery then the flexibility is of no value. To really take advantage of flexibility of space, we need to have lots of content options and activities that students can be engaged in that will allow them to learn and reflect in ways that make sense to them.

So how do we make better use of the spaces at our disposal? We need to invest a lot of time into teaching teachers how to teach in that environment. Notice I didn’t say “show teachers how to facilitate learning in that environment”? That was intentional. In many cases, students learn in spite of what their teachers do – the learning can often happen no matter what is going on. However, when teachers are effective teachers (i.e. they “teach” well, for a given interpretation of “teach”), then the learning that is possible for students is far greater than it would be otherwise.

My plan for this year is therefore twofold – by developing a strategic plan for the growth, use and implementation of technology for teaching and learning at the school, I’ll be seriously considering the role of professional development to not only address the technical and pedagogical needs of staff with respect to technology, but with respect to the learning spaces as well.

Changing Culture: Consultation, Community Involvement and Nurturing Innovation

What was really clear from early presentations where schools had successfully changed the culture was that in every case, without exception, students and the general community were involved in the process. Presenters made it very clear that a large part of what kept students interested in the school was the building of relationships with their teachers and school leaders, and that empowering them to drive aspects of the decision-making process was the easiest way to get buy in from the student body. We’re currently in the process of investigating a new timetable structure to cope with the increasing enrolment numbers at our school, and it gave me the idea – why don’t we have the students organise a community forum to collect ideas and present options about what this might look like? It is one of the things I’m going to suggest as part of our strategy over the next few months, and I’m hoping that other members of the leadership team will see the value in such a move. Does it mean that the student voice will be the only determinant of any change? No. But it will mean that their voices will be heard and can be considered as a part of the change process.

The other barrier to change that was discussed at length was the perception of what school should look like that came from parents – it was interesting to hear how principals who had only recently taken up their positions were contacted by families to find out if they were prepared to “stop the madness” that was going on in the school. As previous participants in the education process, many parents “know” what school is and are afraid of any departure from that picture. Successful schools that have managed to shift their pedagogical approaches away from teacher-centric, content-focused delivery practices to student-directed, teacher-guided, personalised learning unanimously had parents heavily involved in the transition. There was a significant investment in parent education; bringing teachers, students and parents together to openly share what it was each stakeholder group thought education should look like and what tools and environments would facilitate it. The greatest allies for schools in these conversations were the students themselves – it turns out that kids are much better at convincing their parents something is a good idea than the school is, and when all parties agree the transition is smoother and much quicker than it might otherwise be.

Stephen Harris, Principal of Northern Beaches Christian School, presented his “steps” for successful cultural change:

  1. Observe the situation, and involve everyone in the process;
  2. Have a clear vision about where you’re headed;
  3. Develop the vision with others – build it and it allow it to grow;
  4. Encourage ideas that support the vision through space and collaboration;
  5. Act on those ideas; and
  6. Evaluate progress regularly and adapt the vision based on what is working.

It’s a relatively simple idea, but for me I think the key is definitely defining the vision and having others buy-in to it – making it a shared vision so that everyone is working towards the same goal. I think of it a bit like a soccer team – everyone plays a very specific role, with  each working towards getting the ball in the opponent’s goal while not giving up their own. Without the goals at either end, we’d have a lot less structure and nothing concrete to work towards, and there’d also be no way of determining the success of any unplanned moments of brilliance that might come along.

Structures that encourage innovation

Another thread throughout many of the presentations was that innovation and change comes about only when supported by appropriate structures. Some of these are organisational, others physical. I’ve extracted the ones that struck a chord with me below.

Leadership Structures

A couple of schools talked about the way they’ve structured their leadership teams to both take advantage of the skills and expertise of their staff and to encourage creative thinking and innovation. NBCS and the Australian Science and Mathematics School both threw out the traditional, faculty-based organisational structure and instead have adopted more fluid and dynamic approaches that encourage experimentation and collaboration rather than reporting up and down the chain of command. This primarily achieves two things:

  • it eliminates the expectation of management that a hierarchical, top-to-bottom structure creates, encouraging every person in the organisation to take on leadership roles and innovate, and shifting the emphasis of senior members of the organisation towards visionary thinking and innovation; and
  • it breaks down the barriers that are naturally created by the independent business units common in hierarchies – typically in high schools, this is the faculty unit.

I love the idea that teachers should spend more time working with colleagues from other disciplines and sharing their thoughts more widely, and that leaders are given greater opportunity to define what the important aspects of their roles are.

What was really evident, however, was that for this approach to work, everyone must be invested in the vision and strategic direction of the school. There’s a significant amount of groundwork necessary to put that in place before you can just flip the organisation on its head.

Personal Learning Time

At our school, students are not timetabled on every class which provides them with their own Personal Learning Time. The idea is that by providing students with some flexible time they can use to focus on their study in a way that best suits them, and can seek out extra assistance from teachers and peers outside of regular class times. It’s a good idea, but it isn’t always utilised by students as well as it could be.

Many of the schools that presented talked about the way they have adopted “20% time” similar to organisations such as Google and 3M. The idea being that students can choose something to work on – absolutely anything, with no restrictions or limitations – and use 20% of the timetable at school to explore their interest. There is an expectation that they will present what they learn back to their teachers and peers, then move on to another topic or interest.

Across the board, the schools that have adopted it have said it is one of the most popular initiatives amongst the student body. It got me thinking – we’ve got that space in the timetable (which in our case works out to be about “16% time”), what if we could recognise anything a student did that sat outside of the regular curriculum during that time? I think there’s merit in the idea, and I also believe that there’s a good chance that the learning that takes place would flow on to better results in other subjects too. I’m going to investigate how we might be able to get that happening – providing some kind of framework for students to better utilise their non-timetabled school time, but still crediting them with some formal recognition of the learning that takes place. I’m sure it’s possible.

The Staffroom

I’ve never been a fan of staff rooms. Personally, I find that while they’re great for developing collegiality amongst the people that share a space, what they also tend to do is create separation between different staff rooms as a result of people not being challenged or exposed to alternative ideas on a regular basis. When there is little need to relocate yourself, busy days often mean you just don’t bother to do so. I’ve always made it my mission to try and get around to other staff rooms regularly so that staff know who I am and I get a chance to hear a bit about what they’re doing. I haven’t been as successful this year as I have previously (moving to a new school no doubt being a factor), but it’s something I’m working on.

To counter the negative effects of the staff room, some schools have begun the process of eliminating them altogether, or at the very least blurring the line between what defines a staff room “space”. Instead, staff are encouraged to work in locations that make the most sense at the time for their work – if it is collaborative planning, moving to a space with a round table and plenty of whiteboard space is going to be much more conducive than a standard staff room space might be. Equally, if what you’re working on requires uninterrupted attention, finding a private area where you can shut yourself away for a short period of time to finish something up is equally important.

I don’t believe that you can just get rid of the staff room altogether – I think there’s a need in any school environment for teachers to be able to separate themselves from the students at times, especially when you consider the many situations where privacy is important (for the students and the staff). But I do believe that you can minimise the amount of staff room space in a school. A large space or two with options for lots of people to work in different ways strikes me as the ideal – just like we want to create dynamic, fluid spaces for learning in different ways, so too should we be looking at these options for staff. Besides, there will always be the occasional empty space at various times of the day where classes aren’t happening, and that could be useful too.

The biggest blocker here would no doubt be staff themselves – many staff have become comfortable working in the current paradigm, and to change would be a fairly significant shift. We’re also used to many procedures in schools that tend to work on the assumption that teachers reside in staff rooms and that those places aren’t fluid – there’d be a lot of work that needs to be done to alter administrative processes and implement solutions that would allow us to operate in a different environment.

Information and technology

The Library

Without a doubt, one of the most contentious spaces when any suggestion for change is made is the library. I love books – I’ve got a decent sized collection of my own at home, but the reality is that when I go looking for information nowadays often books are not my first point of reference. There are some situations where books are absolutely fantastic – one of the most challenging things I find at the moment when teaching accounting is that while there is plenty of information online for techniques and processes that apply to accounting generally, finding information about things that are specifically Australian that are accessible to students can be really tough. There are books that do this well, and their value cannot be understated.

So when I suggest the following, don’t interpret it as me being a book-burner or anything – libraries need to change in a BIG way. We don’t need anywhere near the amount of books that is typical in a conventional, established library. We also don’t need the library to contain classrooms, labs of computers or tables set up only for individual study. The library has the potential to become an energising hub of information, research and thinking, but libraries with older designs don’t conjure up those images anymore.

I see libraries now as being much more multi-modal, and there are many librarians out there that completely understand it. Our TLs are regularly recording and sourcing video for students that they make available through our media servers, and this supplements our book collection. They do a great job and I value the TL role immensely.

However the spaces in libraries need to reflect this. More small study areas, lots of variety in the spaces available, collections of resources such as podcasts, videos, lectures and media from educational institutions across the world – that’s what is relevant to our students today. And, best of all, a lot of this material is actually free. The problem is the quantity and quality of what is out there, but that’s where the real value of the Teacher Librarian is – they know how to curate and catalogue amazing content.

To be able to do this effectively, TLs need the time and technology to support this move, and some input to help design library spaces that are attractive and inviting to students of all ages.

Communication

Communication is never the best it can be – it just isn’t possible. It’s a multi-faceted problem that gets so complex with new forms of communication that keeping up is a job in itself. But one of the things that always frustrates me is the amount of time spent on communicating administrative information when instead, what inspires learning and excites people is hearing about interesting developments in a range of areas.

We’ve got large screen TVs hooked up across the college that are capable of streaming all types of media from a content server. What exactly are they used for? Right now, RSS feeds of news, the school Twitter feeds and similar, but most of what goes up there is administrative – this event is coming up, don’t forget exam week etc. None of the content is designed to challenge thinking – it’s used to disseminate information.

That information shouldn’t dominate those screens. Sure, it’s important and it needs to be shared, but surely there are better ways to make use of significant amounts of display time. I’ve been thinking – what if the administrative announcements were up during certain times of the day, while during others the screens were showing streams of what was happening in the performing arts, or video of some interesting science experiments, or a major cosmological event, or a public lecture from a local university on a human rights issue? One of the ways I think we can better engage students with that kind of information is to make it easily accessible, and to give them a reason to go back and look at the screens on a regular basis. If all we’re doing is feeding them information they are getting from other sources (such as their smartphones), it’s an opportunity that’s going to waste.

I’m not completely sure of the capabilities of our systems, but I understand that the server and software is quite powerful. I’m going to incorporate better use of our existing systems into the strategic plan for technology.

The power of Peer Instruction

For me, the best session of the conference was the second day keynote presented by Eric Mazur from Harvard University. I mentioned it earlier because of all of the sessions that were held, it struck me as being the most interactive. While others attempted to involve us, the enthusiasm Eric generated as a result of the use of peer instruction in a restrictive lecture space was enlightening. What was surprising wasn’t that it worked – it’s something I’m sure all teachers have used before – but that it made me feel like a student that wanted to learn again. By the end of his lecture, I’m sure that every single person present was excited about thermal expansion in solids, or at least was hooked enough to need to know the answer to his question.

Mazur has delivered other lectures on this same topic in the past – his Confessions of a Converted Lecturer video is available on YouTube (this version is 80 minutes long, but there is also an 18 minute summary) – but ultimately, what he showed us was that students, when involved in each other’s learning, are able to teach others and convince them of a correct answer if they’re given the time to do so. Using real-time feedback and response systems, he was able to demonstrate how once a critical mass of students in a large group had understood the concept, he could have the group collectively find the correct answer to a problem very quickly. Even in a lecture, where the teacher remains at the front and direct access to them by the students isn’t possible, it is enough to have students speak with the people around them.

He’s known as the “Pioneer” of Peer Instruction and Flipped Learning, and he spoke about both of these topics in his presentation, but the clear contrast with his presentation compared to many others was that in his case, his focus was on the change in pedagogy that was necessary for student improvement. Not once did he discuss the flipped classroom beyond the idea that the video became the tool for delivery of content and the classroom experience the change to engage with the material through problems and practice – once that had ben established, all of his time was spent emphasising that the classroom environment and teacher actions had to change to ensure that opportunity was provided to the students.

I’ve taken a lot of what he modelled on board and I’m going to endeavour to do a lot more to provide my students with as many opportunities as possible to practice and share their learning experiences. I’m convinced that it needs to be a fundamental part of what learning should look like in all classrooms. That too will be a factor in the development of our technology plan.

Ultimately, a LOT to think about and share with the leadership team at school on my return. Was it a worthwhile two days – for me, absolutely. For the school? That’s dependent on the willingness of everyone to experiment a little and enact elements of what has been successful in other places. I think there’s a lot there that has the power to improve what we do.

Leave a Reply